Will Self has declared war on George Orwell, anointing him the “Supreme Mediocrity” in a mediocre essay distinguished only by its needless use of the word “lucubrations.” For those of you Americans out there who know of Orwell but have never heard of Will Self (I wonder how that came about?), Self is a novelist who is something of a darling of the British “lovie-liberal” inner city late-sipping champagne socialist set (and Guardian readers, where those two don’t overlap), who is famous for a pretentious writing style that uses too many fancy words. If you doubt the quality of my judgment, try anything from this extract from his new book:

Claude experiments, turning his whole head because his eye sockets …are filled with gritty sand, – he sees the sea green to aquamarine to cobalt blue to silver blue to silvery to silver white then vanish completely as …I push my head up her skirt… Mm–mm, finest ear-protectors a fellow can get – flesh-filled nylons fitted snug to the head and dried with talc… The kid is maybe forty feet down now, yet his dancing plummeting body can still be clearly seen

Unadulterated bullshit, or quality literature? You be the judge.

Will Self, of course, is emblematic of a vanguard of … how can we put this nicely? … dickheads who have managed between them to kill much of the joy of the English novel over the past couple of decades. Over that time I’ve met a few people – some literature majors – who have told me they’ve basically given up on reading novels, because for example “I couldn’t give a toss about another rich white person’s shallow imaginary world,” or because “it’s all showmanship and self-importance, there’s no joy in it” or just because “Oh my god what a pack of tossers the literary world has become.” The Man-Booker prizelist is an example of this: supposedly composed of the best writers of English in the Commonwealth, it is actually a shortlist of writers to avoid if you want to read a good book, and for all the reasons those who eschew the modern novel have given me. The Man-Booker prize winners are a small clique of stuck-up novelists who write to impress each other, rather than to extend the joys of the English language. That’s fine, soggy sao is a fine public school tradition and if that’s what gets you off then by all means, do your worst … but must you demand a prize for it? Will Self, of course, has been shortlisted for the Man-Booker, and if he keeps randomly resampling his thesaurus, eventually he’ll win. He’s a pretentious writer who knows how to use long words and wide vocabulary to hide a lack of ideas or talent.

In short, the antithesis of everything George Orwell stood for. With a new book out, so of course it’s a prime time to lay the boot into one of his dead idols.

It’s telling that Self opens the essay with a quote from Chesterton, an author who would very much fall into Orwell’s camp where opinions about pretentious writing are concerned. He then lays out a rather petty theory of why British people laud mediocrities, against all the evidence that the real heroes of the British are not mediocre at all (Churchill and Thatcher, mediocre? “Individuals who unite great expertise and very little originality – let alone personality”?). This is an example of the kind of theorizing a vapid writer-at-large can pull out of thin air, gloss with a few fancy words and toss about without regard for truth or sense, but it is certainly no kind of comment on Britain or how the British construct their idols. So from this lead-in to the conclusion that Orwell is a mediocrity, we have a logical failure built on a failed premise. He then manages to find two paragraphs of his entire essay to actually discuss what might be wrong with Orwell’s work, though again here he bandies his opinion about without any evidence or logic. No support for the claim of “obvious didacticism” and no discussion of what makes an “unadorned Anglo-Saxon style,” or indeed what might be wrong with such a thing. Make no mistake, this is how famous people troll – with fact-free assertions they can get away with because they’re given free rein over the BBC’s essay pages.

But it’s from this piss-poor effort at criticizing Orwell’s actual written work that Self then goes on to make his biggest fail in this essay. Citing Orwell’s famous essay on straight English, Self spends several paragraphs showing exactly the extent to which he failed to understand that essay. He says first of all that it is wrong, and then explains why: because language grows and mutates, and is defined by how people use it and why they use it, and attempts to dictate centrally how language should be used are morally wrong, whether enforced by George Orwell or the Ministry of Truth.

The thing is, Orwell’s essay has nothing to say about how language mutates or is reformed, he doesn’t give a toss about “African American Vernacular English” (oh Will, why did you choose such a pathetically PC-baiting example?!) or how much English consumes other languages and reconstitutes them to feed its voracious needs. His famous essay is about the dangers of using whatever language is at your disposal in disingenuous or deceptive ways, to hide what you mean rather than to say it. Furthermore, the primary value of the essay is not in what it says to authors and fiction writers, but to all those other users of English who are clearly beneath Self’s gaze: scientists, bureaucrats, business people, journalists, politicians and the like. Of course Will Self doesn’t have to actually work, except inasmuch as he is overpaid for occasionally dressing up shallow and simple ideas so that they look interesting. But for the rest of us – those of us for whom English is important to express to others the content of our real jobs – the ways in which English can be abused to hide meaning are very important and require a lot of skill to grasp.

For example, if you’re going to be paid a crapton of money to talk about some dude watching a kid drown while imagining going down on his nanny, it frankly doesn’t matter how much florid language you use, you’re just trying to make a dumb non-sequitur look interesting. But if you’re writing a textbook on Bayesian statistics and you have to explain the interpretation of a Bayesian credible interval compared to a frequentist confidence interval, you already have a lot of jargon to juggle and you need to think very carefully about how to calibrate your prose so that it is comprehensible between all the technical language. If you have to polish your language down to a couple of thousand words expressing a huge research task, you need to be very careful about when and how you embellish your language. And conversely, if you want to reassure the American public that you aren’t water-boarding innocent people when in fact you are, but you don’t want to be caught lying, you need to very carefully use language deceitfully in order to get away with it. Orwell’s concern is not with whether someone lies in the Queen’s English or Ebonics; his concern is with the deceitful use of language to lie or obfuscate, or the accidental embellishment of language in a way that makes it incomprehensible.

That Will Self didn’t understand this fundamental point of the essay he presents as evidence for the mediocrity of Orwell’s writing style would be hilarious if it weren’t so pathetic. And roping in a poorly-understood version of Chomsky to help in the task of getting it wrong is really not a good look either. Nor is mistaking the clear elucidation of a terrible dystopia as “didacticism” just because you think that making a thing clearly understood is the same as talking down to someone like an authoritarian teacher. This says more about Self’s insecurities than it does about Orwell’s writing style.

Self finishes his ignorant little rant by talking about how poorly he views “those mediocrities who slavishly worship at the shrine of St George.” For a lot of people, Orwell’s essay on how to use English has been a guiding light in a world of business jargon, weasel words, dissembling and deceit; many of us work in jobs where English is important for expressing the actual content of our work, rather than as a way of dressing up our shallow, imbecilic imagination for a sycophantic crowd of fellow-travellers. For us, work like Orwell’s essay on politics and the English language is a clear guide on how to improve our writing so that we can express complex ideas clearly and accessibly; and also a workbook on how to identify when people are lying to us through creative use of language. To Will Self, however, we are “mediocrities.”Faced with a choice between the “Supreme Mediocrity” and an advanced thesaurus-user who can’t even win the Man-Booker prize, I think I’ll stick with Orwell for future writing advice. And I suspect that 50 years after Self’s death, the majority of the English-speaking world will be making the same decision as me.

The most well-respected methods for reducing carbon emissions seem to be carbon taxes and carbon price mechanisms. I have written before about how I think they will not work to achieve a zero carbon state, based on lessons from the field of public health. Here I want to explore in a little more detail just what we might expect in the long-term from a carbon taxation system.

An illustrative example: Effects of carbon taxes on fishing

Fish are a staple food in Japan, and fishing is a carbon intensive practice because fishing fleets use diesel oil. We can get a rough estimate of how much carbon is required to produce a single piece of fish, and use this to estimate how price would change under a carbon tax. First, consider the total carbon emitted in catching fish: this website puts it at between 1750 and 3300 kg for a ton of fish, with the highest carbon emission amongst farmed fish. The analysis suggests that 1kg of wild-caught frozen salmon will be associated with 1kg of CO2; a carbon footprint of up to 6Kg can be expected for fish that is caught in say Chile, and shipped to the US. Taking 5kg as a conservative estimate of the carbon footprint of a kg of fish, we can see that  for a carbon tax of $X per ton, $X/200 is added per kg of fish sold in the super market. So for a price of $250 per ton, we get $1.25 per kilogram; for $2500 per ton, we get $12.50 per kilogram.

The Coles website tells me that salmon fillets are currently $30 per kg. A carbon price of $2500 a ton will increase their cost by approximately 30%.

We can calculate the cost for fresh fish in a supply chain directly, so let’s try this for a typical fresh Tokyo fish, Mackerel. The Seafish.org website has a carbon footprint profiler which indicates that you need to take into account “landed to live weight” and “final processed form to landed weight,” which we can estimate fairly conservatively (though I don’t know the details). This ancient paper (pdf) gives an efficiency of about 3% for shrimp fishing, while this FAO document gives landed weights of between 3 and 84%. Working with Mackerel from that document, let’s assume that only 3% of caught fish is actually edible[1], and make that the “landed to live weight” ratio. The FAO provides a handy guide to “conversion factors” for converting landed fish to actual final processed form, as an annex (pdf) to this guide. Taking the mackerel factor, let’s assume that only 50% of the final fish is eaten, in the form of a fillet. The site then asks us to show how much the fish traveled before and after processing, and by what means. Let’s assume it is landed fresh in Tokyo after a 5 day fishing trip, and that it traveled 40km by truck to the processing plant, then 40 km by van to the shops, and was eaten within a day (pretty standard in Tokyo). Using “Trawling for Herring in the NW Atlantic” as our model fishing method, we get 7.4 tons of CO2 for every ton of final product. So we would need to add X/133 to the per kg price of the fish. For a carbon price of $250, that’s $1.90; for $2500, a $19.00 impost. This site tells me that Mackerel in Japan costs between 600 and 8000 Yen per kilogram ($6-80), so a $2500/ton carbon tax would change this price range to $25-100 per kg. The Coles website tells me Australians already pay $20/kg for tinned mackerel – is it very likely that Japanese will baulk at paying $25 for fresh mackerel? Furthermore, this is for the most inefficient live catch and processing values I can find. If the live catch efficiency goes up to 10%, for example, the impost for those carbon taxes drops to $0.60 – $6.

No one on earth is currently considering a $2500 ton carbon tax. Even $250 a ton is considered radical, but $250 a ton will increase the final price of mackerel by $0.60 – $1.90 per kg. Does anyone seriously believe that this impost will be sufficient to force the fishing fleet to go carbon-neutral?

What are the long-term impacts of carbon taxes?

I chose fishing as an example because it differs from electricity generation in one simple way: short of returning to sailboats, there is no viable low-carbon alternative to fossil fuels for fishing boats at present. So the fishing industry will have little choice but to absorb the price of a carbon tax, pass it on to consumers, or disappear, unless and until an alternative energy source becomes available. If our goal is to get to a carbon zero economy and still be able to eat fish, a carbon tax is surely not going to work. But there are other aspects of the economy that are entirely vulnerable to a carbon tax, most especially electricity generation and public transport. So how well are carbon taxes predicted to work in these industries?

There does not seem to be a lot of available modeling on the long-term impact of carbon taxes, but those reports that have been published are not promising. For example, this report by the Citizens’ Climate Lobby describes a carbon tax starting at $10/tonne and increasing to $250/tonne at $10/year. They use four different established models to identify total, and industry- and region-wide effects of the carbon tax. Their final estimate of the effect of the carbon tax is a 50% reduction in emissions by 2035 (page 30). After that the gains decline. This report, from the carbon tax center, proposes a system of tax and credits that appears to correspond with a $113/tonne tax, and would lead to 25% reductions in emissions by 2024 on a 2012 baseline.

350.org says we need to get to 350ppm by the end of the century to avoid catastrophe; we’re currently on 400ppm and increasing at 2ppm per year. If we halve global emissions by 2035, we’ll be above 420ppm, and still increasing.

As another example, my July electricity bill was $66 for 214kwh of electricity. In Tokyo at the moment this is mostly gas, and would (according to Wikipedia) have released a total of 107 kg of CO2, based on median emissions. At $250/ton that’s going to increase my electricity bill by about $25/month. How much electricity use will that discourage? $25 is a cheap meal out with a few drinks. At $2500/ton it’s $250/month – two cheap meals out and two trips to a love hotel. Am I willing to give up two dates a month in order to keep my electricity use unchanged?

I don’t believe that even a $250/ton carbon tax will be sufficient to force carbon neutrality in electricity generation, and $2500/ton, while it will make solar and wind competitive and force a fairly rapid switch to renewables, may not lead to much change in other behavior, especially in industries like shipping and trucking where alternatives are expensive and still barely off the drawing board. The Citizens’ Climate Lobby report tells us that in the USA each $1/ton of carbon tax is a $.009/gallon increase in petrol prices; $2500 a ton will increase petrol prices by $22.5/gallon. Currently in Tokyo gasoline is sold at probably $2/gallon. Will people completely stop using cars at $25/gallon? Given that a single journey in Japan can cost $5 in parking, and a car can travel 35 mpg, i.e. two trips per parking cost, the total cost of those two trips will go from $14 to $35 in Tokyo. Is that sufficient to stop recreational use of cars?

These reports make clear that even sizeable taxes of up to $250/ton are not enough to get where we need to go. The first report, suggesting $10/year increases in the tax, shows the obvious problem – as the tax grows, the incremental benefit of further increases declines, so going to higher taxes will have smaller and smaller effects. By the time we’re at $300/ton, a further $10/year increase will be less than the effect of inflation on prices in many countries. People will stop responding to those taxes by that time. And as I showed in the case of fishing, there will be many industries where this cost can be passed onto consumers with a negligible effect. I routinely buy fish fillets in Tokyo for $2/fillet, am I seriously going to reduce my carbon footprint if the price of such cheap food doubles?

What we need to bear in mind here is that we don’t want to reduce recreational use of cars by 50% over the next 30 years, or by 90%; realistically, any CO2 emitting form of transport needs to be cut by 99%. These taxes alone are not going to do that.

What do we need to do to achieve carbon zero?

Carbon neutrality will not be achieved by taxes alone. We need additional government interventions to make it happen. Carbon taxes with appropriate transfers to ensure that poor people are compensated for the change are a good start, but they are only a start. We need to go a lot further if we want to achieve these goals. Some policy interventions should include:

  • Complete electrification of freight rail: Australia’s rail freight system (indeed all inter-city lines) is still diesel-powered; it should be electrified immediately, so that it can be shifted to a renewable energy source as the taxes bite
  • Expansion of passenger and freight rail: Most Australian cities are heavily dependent on road transport, which for the foreseeable future is immune to carbon abatement policies. As much as possible, the transport network needs to be shifted to rail, that can be electrified
  • Electrification of all buses: all public buses should be immediately electrified
  • Implementation of tollways: all major interstate highways should be shifted to a toll system, with tolls based on both distance travelled and journey speed, and tolls manipulated to ensure long distance travel is always cheaper by train and bus than by car
  • Construction of high speed rail: this is never going to be profitable in Australia, so it should be subsidized by government, using carbon tax proceeds, and prices fixed in such a way that it is always competitive with air travel and private road travel
  • Minimum price for air travel: Air travel will never be carbon neutral, so it needs to be discouraged or people need to find ways to use their journeys more efficiently (i.e. travel less often and stay longer). A minimum price will encourage this, and should be designed so that electric high speed rail is always cheaper
  • Nuclearization of all large ocean-going vessels: if it’s large enough to have a nuclear power source, it should. No freight should be carried on a CO2-emitting ship.
  • Reorientation of commercial fishing fleets around batteries and nuclear tankers: I don’t know if this is possible, but fishing needs to be redesigned so it is carbon neutral. If it isn’t yet possible to design battery powered ships, research funds should be dumped into this
  • A timetable for the banning of internal combustion engines: Some time in the future, internal combustion engines need to be banned. This timetable should be implemented now. By e.g. 2020, gasoline-using cars should be illegal, so people have 6 years to buy a battery car or convert to CNG; by 2025 or 2030, CNG cars should be illegal. That gives a 15 year time frame to completely electrify the personal transport industry
  • Immediate conversion of cars to compressed natural gas: This should be a brief boom industry, as all old cars are converted.
  • Lower all speed limits: so that cars travel more efficiently and private travel is less time-efficient than public transport
  • Ban all new coal-extraction licenses: No new coal mines should be built anywhere in Australia, and furthermore no new development should be allowed in connection with existing mines. Existing infrastructure bottlenecks to efficient extraction should be seen as a good thing.
  • Divestment laws: Investment funds should be required to divest all holdings in carbon-intensive industries on a reasonable but definitive timetable
  • Scale-up of electric charging points: Cars should be rechargable anywhere
  • Mandatory roof-top solar: for all businesses
  • Mandatory grid integration: no power company should be able to refuse a reasonable request to sell power into the grid.
  • Mandatory storage in new buildings, and subsidies to convert existing buildings: apartment blocks are not efficient solar collectors, but they could still be built with sufficient storage that they can store some solar power for release onto the grid at night
  • Ban all rice and cotton production in the Murray-Darling watershed: water needs to be returned to the river for greening of the river course, because restoring natural wetlands and green areas is essential to improving carbon sequestration
  • Huge rewilding and reforestation programs: Carbon sequestration through forestry management is essential, and this project needs to be undertaken immediately, so that it forms a key part of future carbon reduction strategies. It can be conducted in such a way as to support and restore biodiversity
  • Huge research grants on storage and renewable energy: We need to get to the point where electric trucks and ocean-going boats are a possibility within 20 years. This will need research. We should be doing it

And finally, I think that climate change denial should be illegal outside of scientific journals – if people want to claim it’s not happening they should be required to present peer-reviewed scientific evidence. Funding climate change denial should be a criminal act. The government should further refuse to offer contracts to organizations that have hosted denialists or funded denialists in e.g. the last 10 years. These people need to be driven out of public life and should have no influence on public debate. It is absolutely ludicrous that after three of the hottest months on record (April, May and June), the government’s business advisor is publicly claiming that a period of major global cooling is imminent. That dude should be unemployable, and preferably in stocks[2].

A lot of these programs will require major government subsidies, transfers and loans, and huge government intervention across a range of marketplaces. We need to stop acting as if the worst consequence of responding to the climate crisis is government intervention in markets, and start recognizing that it is the minimum requirement to stave off a civilization-level disaster. It’s huge government intervention now, or civilization collapse later.

So go looking back through history and ask yourself – has any civilization collapse ever been preventable through a small tax that raised the price of fish by 10%? I think you’ll find the answer is no. The emergency is coming, and we need to act as if it’s an emergency, not a minor market failure.

fn1: For farmed fish, this number should be near 100%, obviously.

fn2: This is clearly a rhetorical point

I have previously written about the difficulty of accurately understanding the issue of sex trafficking, and attempted to point out the conflicted political goals and deceptive tactics of some of the key activists and organizations in the movement against sex trafficking. I wrote these posts in connection with my argument that radical feminist critiques of sex work are fundamentally anti-woman, and observed that they often employ the power of a fundamentally patriarchal state apparatus to enforce their “radical” goals. Recently, a scandal has exploded around one of the US poster-boys for the anti-trafficking movement, Nic Kristoff, author of the anti-sex work screed Half the Sky and pro-sweatshop campaigner.

It turns out that one of the main anti-trafficking activists upon whom Kristoff’s campaign depended, Somaly Mam, turns out to be a fraud: Newsweek has a long and detailed expose of her false claims to have been abused, along with tales about how she trained the children in her care to lie about their experiences for western media, in order to secure funds and political support. Salon has an article suggesting Kristoff knew about these lies, and played a key role in boosting the tall stories being told in order to support the fund-raising efforts of various NGOs (and of course, to boost his own credentials as a rescuer of poor women from developing nations). This article points out that many women “rescued” by NGOs like Mam’s end up working in the garment industry, and are not allowed to talk about their pay and conditions with visiting journalists. Sounds like trafficking, no? The Newsweek article quotes researching pointing out that the number of children trafficked into sex work in Cambodia is likely tiny, and that most adult women working in the industry also are there voluntarily. Of course, these women are “choosing” sex work in the context of a poor nation with few employment alternatives for uneducated women – and one of the main alternatives is the hard, exhausting and sometimes dangerous option of working in the garment industry – an industry, we should remember, that Kristoff writes articles in support of, and that “rescue” NGOs supply “rescued” sex workers to.

Kristoff is, of course, famous for this sick and disturbing tale of having “bought” two sex workers from their “owner” in Cambodia. Consider the final paragraph of this tale, which shows both a callous disregard for the actual economic and social prospects of women from developing nations, and a cynical contempt for their personal choices:

So now I have purchased the freedom of two human beings so I can return them to their villages. But will emancipation help them? Will their families and villages accept them? Or will they, like some other girls rescued from sexual servitude, find freedom so unsettling that they slink back to slavery in the brothels? We’ll see.

 Do you think that many slaves would “slink back to slavery” after they were freed by the underground railway in pre-civil war America? No, probably not. What kind of language is being deployed here, that a commentator would honestly think people liberated from slavery would “slink” back to it? This is disgusting language, and it shows the way in which Kristoff instrumentalizes women and girls in his quest to prove himself morally superior – even as he defends an industry that is renowned for its labour abuses.
Following up on these revelations, the New York Times (Kristoff’s employer) has an excellent article about the difficulties of activism in this field. This article quotes one activist from Cambodia criticizing journalistic endeavours in these nations:
You show the face of the mother, who is so poor that she has to sell her daughter for money? How does this help the daughter or mother? It doesn’t. It helps the NGO to make money.
This is what people like Somaly Mam were doing. It’s worth also reading the comments of the Salon and NY Times articles, which contain detailed and thoughtful comments by activists working in the field who have been waiting for Kristoff’s bubble to burst. They are highly critical of efforts to outlaw sex work, and of the role of the US State Department in encouraging violent crackdowns on “traffickers” that inevitably end up harming sex workers, and these activists instead encourage the development of labour unions and sex worker organizations similar to those operating in Thailand. Of course, a campaigner for sweatshops has zero interest in supporting unionization, which history shows us is the only way workers in the garment industry have ever been able to protect themselves from terrible abuse. A person who supports sweatshops and campaigns against sex work must have seen enough of both industries to know that one pays considerably more than the other – is it any wonder that his response to the industry that pays more is to try and break it up on moral grounds, and to oppose any political response based on labour organization, which is the historical enemy of the industry he supports? No, it is not.
This is what lies behind the anti-trafficking movement, and all too often those who work to criminalize the broader sex industry use the “sex trafficking problem” as their entry-level argument against the entire industry. As these articles show, the effects of this activism on ordinary women voluntarily involved in sex work can be ferocious, not to mention the damage done to women “rescued” from trafficking by these unscrupulous organizations. When contemplating what “should be done” about sex work, the best option is first and foremost to ask the women who work in the industry – not rich white journalists or NGOs who claim to have a simple solution to a moral problem. Because where sex work is concerned, those people will turn out to be liars, and they do not have the interests of poor women and girls at heart.

Today’s Guardian has a classic piece of click-bait by the opinionated and ignorant AIDS-denialist Simon Jenkins, in which he claims that maths is a waste of time for school students, and government obssession with maths will make schools intolerable and authoritarian. His article is leavened in equal measure with sneering at any politician who tries to find a solution to any problem, haughty dismissal of any attempt to regularize or monitor teaching practice, and a sly dose of cheap stereotyping to boot. At time of writing it is completely buried on the Guardian website (at least this newspaper has some shame!) and has attracted 1594 comments, mostly disagreeing with his pathetic and stupid thesis.

The thing that really stands out for me is not the vacuity and shallowness of the arguments, but the existence of the article itself. Can anyone imagine a Japanese, Chinese or Korean newspaper bothering to publish an opinion piece arguing that maths is a waste of time? Can anyone imagine an ordinary Japanese, Chinese or Korean citizen being one-eyed enough (or worked up enough) to comment on such an article agreeing with it? The existence of such theories in East Asia is pretty questionable, I would say: there are lots of Japanese for whom maths is a waste of time, but the number of Japanese who think teaching maths is a waste of time would be pretty small, I think – certainly not sufficient to support an article on the topic in a major newspaper. If anyone wants to look at why Britain is failing in the (shudder) “global race,” articles like this by “public thinkers” give you a big hint as to the answer: an ex-editor of the Times actually believes that trying to improve maths teaching is a “race to the bottom” against China, and apparently believes schools shouldn’t teach things if they are a waste of time to the majority of their pupils.

I wonder what Jenkins thinks schools should be doing, if not teaching material that is a waste of time? Shakespeare is clearly out, as is most of history. Apparently philosophy is important because it helps one to understand formal logic (just putting aside the preponderance of mathematicians amongst the classical philosophers, for the sake of “argument”…) Jenkins is an AIDS denialist, so I guess he thinks sex education is a waste of time too. I imagine he thinks geography enormously relevant, but he would probably prefer it to focus on map reading and memorizing the names of capital cities – all that stuff about social geography and global warming is irrelevant, surely. And he wouldn’t want kids being able to calculate age-standardized mortality rates, because then they might notice that AIDS is a big issue in some parts of the world …

Most of all these articles – which appear fairly regularly in the British press – make me angry because of the toxic mix of contradictory stereotypes about maths (and by extension, mathematicians) that they promulgate. On the one hand maths teaching is a brutal exercise in crushing creativity, because maths is a fundamentally joyless and mechanical process that depends on rote learning and soul-destroying repetition; but only a few people are actually good at maths – presumably due to some kind of innate talent or special powers – so there’s no point in teaching the rest of us anything. Not only are these two ideas fundamentally incompatible, but they also suggest some kind of contrast with the humanities in which studying the humanities is always and everywhere liberating and enlightening, and hours of soulless repetition (or indeed the development of any kind of skills connected to such study) are unnecessary. Tell that to a good writer, or a ballerina … Jenkins’s view somehow manages to simultaneously belittle both mathematics and the disciplines he sets up in opposition to it.

He also manages to belittle the Chinese when he says

I once visited Chinese schools; they were like communist drill halls, factories of pressure, discipline and childhood misery

What’s that, Jenkins? You visited “Chinese schools”? All of them, was it? Maybe just 10% of them? Or did you mean to say “a Chinese school” and just couldn’t quite get yourself to spit it out? A solid grounding in mathematics might help you with that whole singular/plural distinction thing, and it might also help you to calculate what proportion of “Chinese schools” you visited, to help you understand how representative your experience was. But I can tell you this for free, Jenkins: I studied in British schools (probably, at a guess, more schools than you ever visited in China), and I can tell you now: they were like communist drill halls, factories of discipline and childhood misery. There’s even a famous British song about how terrible they are. At least Chinese kids leave their schools capable of doing basic mathematics. You might want to think about that before you make sweeping statements about a nation of a billion people, based on a couple of hours in a Shanghai school.

Many of the commenters on the article have said this, but I’d like to repeat it here: if you want to see the intellectual justification for Britain’s decline in the modern world, articles like this make it as clear as day. Here we have a senior public figure who was an editor of Britain’s most respected paper (the Times), writing from the nation that invented calculus about how teaching mathematics is a waste of time. That, right there, expresses Britain’s decline in a nutshell. Thank you, Jenkins, for making it clear. Now to the back of the class with you, until you have learnt your times tables.

I have got involved in a Saturday-morning stoush about genetically modified (GM) crops at Professor Quiggin’s blog[1]. For those who don’t know him, John Quiggin is a left-wing economist and blogger who wrote the book Zombie Economics, and I think is generally well-respected for his sensible policy views, though he can be spectacularly wrong. I like to think that John and I share a kind of “scientific” leftism, that is a generally left-wing outlook that is informed by evidence and reason. For example I support the criminalization of heroin use, think that nuclear power has a potential role in mitigating anthropogenic global warming (AGW) and is safer than many believe, and of course I accept the science of AGW. One thing I have noticed about scientific leftists though is that they tend to have a tense relationship with the environmental movement, and especially with the more ratbaggy, dreadlocked and “deep eco” arm of it. This friction is most obvious in the disagreements many scientific leftists have with the environmental movement over GM crops, and I think this friction is both generally misguided and misguided in the specific instance of GM crops. In this post I’m going to explore why I think anti-GM leftists have a valid point based in science, and I’m also going to explore why these scientific leftists are so often uncomfortable with their patchouli-scented fellow travellers.

First though I’d like to review the successes and history of the modern environmental movement, because it seems to me that just going on the balance of probabilities, disagreeing with the environmental movement is a good sign that you are probably wrong. I mean this purely in a probabilistic sense, not in a logical sense (I really shouldn’t have to clarify this, but it is the internet). Let’s look at some of the major successes of the environmental movement:

  • They predicted DDT was very bad, and excessive use of DDT for general crop spraying led to the development of resistance in mosquitos, with sad consequences for malaria-endemic countries until pyrethrims were put into controlled use (and note that modern use of anti-malarial sprays follows exactly the guidelines that should have been followed with DDT)
  • They were right about acid rain
  • They were right about GFCs and the ozone layer
  • They were spectacularly right about AGW
  • The clean air act
  • Meat and cancer
  • Meat and malnutrition in the developing world
  • They predicted the collapse of the Grand Banks cod population and after they lost the battle to preserve the fisheries, the entire community that depended on those fisheries died
  • In Australia the Greens and others predicted the collapse of the old growth woodchip industry due to competition from overseas plantations and tried to develop an industry assistance plan based on plantation forests, but the CFMEU fought it because jobs! and now – surprise! – the big woodchipping companies are going under due to overseas plantation competition

The environmental movement has, of course, been spectacularly wrong about nuclear power. Note also that in some cases – like DDT and AGW – we can now say that the movement was more right than it realized at the time. We now know that the consequences of AGW are going to be way way more serious than originally suggested, and since the advent of the global burden of disease studies we have strong evidence that coal is really really bad for human health – vindicating the intentions of the original clean air act in the USA and various campaigns in other countries. So, just on the balance of probabilities, taking a side against the environmental movement on their big ticket issues is likely to make you wrong more often than right. And of course scientific leftists like John Quiggin will look at all the entries on that list and be firmly in favour of the environmental movement’s position on them – except meat. So why are they so suspicious of the anti-GM movement?  And why do they accuse anti-GM campaigners of being “anti-science” so easily, when the history of the environmental movement is that it has had science on its side?

Before I address that, let’s look at the anti-GM movement. John Quiggin suggests in his post that they are only concerned about human consumption of GM foods, and constructs a classic straw environmentalist with this attack:

It would be more effective and more honest for GM opponents to come out and say “we don’t like the idea of tinkering with DNA. We don’t care what the evidence is, or whether there is any observable difference from ‘natural’ foods, we just don’t want to eat this stuff”.

By doing this he ignores substantive issues that environmental campaigners have raised about the potential threats to the environment from GM crops, and the risk to human health through environmental contamination (rather than simply consumption). He wants us to believe that anti-GM campaigners are scared of eating modified DNA because reasons, and doesn’t want us to think that there might be any other reasons for opposing GM crops. But there are other reasons – much more significant than the food safety reasons – and the environmental movement is clear about these reasons. For example Greenpeace Australia has a long FAQ about GM crops and most of the points are not about food safety. The two other big issues with GM crops – environmental contamination and international food inequality – are very important in that FAQ.

The science connected with environmental contamination is fairly solid and self-evident. For example, Farm Industry News reports on the rapid spread of glyphosate-resistant weeds in the USA, based on a study funded by Monsanto (who make round-up resistant crops), and the clear recommendation of this scientific research is that farmers need to rotate their roundup-resistant crops in order to reduce the development of resistance. The article states that

the rate at which glyphosate-resistant weeds are spreading is gaining momentum, increasing 25% in 2011 and 51% in 2012

and pins the blame on overuse of roundup on roundup-resistant crops. This is a classic case of the need for community action: no matter how sensible you might be on your farm, if your neighbours are over-spraying then eventually you will get infected with their roundup-resistant weeds, with serious consequences (some of these weeds can destroy an entire crop). This kind of over-spraying is also going to contaminate river-water (through runoff) and groundwater, and scientists are developing standards for river-water based on the risks to animal and human health. For example, these South African scientists are developing standards for river water based on the harm to river fish; a search of pubmed will reveal studies showing the potential for glyphosate to interfere with human reproduction, which suggests that consumption through contaminated water is a risk to human health. None of this research is anti-science and all of it supports the need to be very careful about the use of these crops.

It’s not as if we don’t have a precedent for this either. In 1962 Rachel Carson published Silent Spring, leading to a movement to ban widespread spraying with DDT. She identified the risk of DDT-resistance, and despite widespread opposition by industry to her findings that is exactly what happened. Why people like John Quiggin think it is anti-science to see the same risk in roundup resistant crops is a mystery to me – I don’t think he can be ignorant of the history of DDT or the toxic debate that has surrounded this chemical in the last 10 years. So why repeat these errors and object to a similar approach to GM crops? And instead of lambasting the anti-GM movement for criminal vandalism and anti-science ideology, why not engage with it to try and produce a constructive, scientific-based approach to the regulation and management of GM crops? I doubt, for example, that John is particularly supportive of overturning the generally-agreed upon ban on geo-engineering. But we could probably develop some kind of horrible plankton or algae that would eat CO2 and stabilize it – surely it’s not anti-science to try? Yet the scientific consensus is that this could be very very dangerous, and no one supports such an effort. What’s the difference?

I think the difference is the activists connected with the movement, and a kind of innate discomfort that a lot of scientific leftists have with their more radical allies who actually do the dirty work on the ground. The anti-GM movement’s foot-soldiers are drawn from the same ranks of dreadlocked hippies as the radical animal rights movement and the anti-forestry movement, and I think scientific leftists – being primarily academics or middle-class professionals – are inherently uncomfortable with the behavior of these scary-looking weirdos. But the reality is that those ratbag activists have achieved a great deal for the environmental movement, which won a great many of its victories through criminal behavior and property damage. This is nowhere more true than in the animal rights movement, which though much-maligned by mainstream leftists has been the most successful international political movement since feminism and has achieved almost all of its gains from a starting point of criminal property damage and theft. In the 1980s animal liberation front (ALF) invasions of vivisection labs produced shocking examples of cruelty that led to the complete revision of ethical guidelines towards animal experiments. Their continued actions against vivisection labs in the 1980s and 1990s forced the practice of animal experimentation into the public mind, and radically changed the way it was done. Similar achievements were gained in slaughterhouses, the live animal trade, factory farming, the fur industry, the pet industry, and especially the cosmetics industry. Laws were rewritten, food production practices changed, and attitudes towards animals revolutionized. Every single one of these campaigns started from direct action and vandalism, often perpetrated by dreadlocked society drop-outs. Many of them involved campaigns against academics – something that obviously won’t appeal to scientific leftists like John Quiggin who are firmly within the establishment academy. But let’s not make any bones about this: those academics needed to be challenged, and this was not happening within the law. The video Hidden Crimes, released in 1986, contains extensive footage of the kind of cowboy behavior and blatant cruelty of these early vivisectionists, and it certainly does not make for pleasant viewing. The great achievement of the animal rights movement has been to force these cruelties into the open, and to completely reshape the institutional landscape within which these crimes are committed. The same is true of the campaign against whaling: while reasonable people talk pointlessly in meetings of the IWC, the sea shepherds are preventing the Japanese from actually catching actual whales. In his biography, Paul Watson makes clear that this action is conducted precisely because no one is willing to act, and before Japan he targeted the USSR and US allies in south America. The whaling issue would be completely under the radar if it weren’t for the behavior of people like Paul Watson, and it is as a direct result of the public pressure arising from Watson’s behavior that Australia raised the whaling issue in the international criminal court.

Of course, this fringe-dwelling hippy radical movement has its fair share of anti-vaccinationists, fluoride conspiracy theorists and new world order nutcases. The anti-vivisection movement was soon hijacked by Hans Ruesch and his anti-medicine cohorts, just as the Union of Concerned Scientists is heavily influenced by anti-nuclear doctors. Every movement that runs up against powerful institutions attracts these people (and I would suggest the anti-AGW movement has been most vulnerable to these types of people – witness Monckton the birther and Agenda21 conspiracist as one of their central figures). But these people acting as the uncontrolled foot-soldiers of a social movement doesn’t make the ideas behind the movement itself wrong, and it’s dangerous to throw out the lessons of the broader movement just because you don’t like the look and feel of a few of its members. Had this approach been taken by Peter Singer towards animal rights, for example, he would have been essentially arguing that any amount of cruelty is legitimate in the pursuit of science. Instead he wrote Animal Liberation and developed a theory of ethics that is easy to apply, practical and enormously influential inside and outside the academy. Peter Singer chose to engage with the movement that his ideas describe, and indeed now many of the ideas the ALF espouse that were once considered extreme and dangerous are now well within the mainstream – as are many of the ideas espoused by earlier generations of environmental activists about hunting and food production. But always these groups are lampooned as anti-science extremists when they first get involved in an issue.

I guess moderate rightist academics do the same thing in respect of their fringe-dwelling nazis and street thugs, though I don’t pay much attention to what’s happening in the cultural sphere where centrist approaches to immigration theory are developed – I get the impression that moderate right-wing academia is strongly opposed to the views of its street-level thugs on immigration, but I don’t really know much about it. I don’t know if the same situation applies there. But in debates about science and the management of scientific processes, I think it’s far far better for scientific leftists to engage with and try to understand the environmental movement than just to reject it out of hand as anti-science, as John Quiggin does in this case. The Peter Singer model of offering academic structure and guidance to the theoretical background of a movement is, in my opinion, far better than what John Quiggin and many other scientific leftists do with GM crops, which is to construct an anti-science straw movement and then knock it down. This isn’t going to move debate forward and it certainly isn’t going to stop the spread of herbicide-resistant weeds.

fn1: My last comment appears to have gone into moderation and disappeared.

Every time you criticize Mandela a fairy puppy dies

Every time you criticize Mandela a fairy puppy dies

Nelson Mandela’s passing was only a few days ago and already the left-wing press and counter-press have managed to come up with a wide range of criticisms of someone who should, ostensibly, be their hero. Slavoj Zizek, that staunch opponent of anything modern in the left, is recycling the old claim that Mandela simply changed the skin colour of the overlords; Counterpunch is leading the charge to claim that he was just a neo-liberal friend of the rich, and black people didn’t benefit from the ANC at all; the Guardian managed to give a thoroughly negative review of his funeral, with the cherry on the icing being their focus on Obama rather than, you know, the South Africans who Mandela led; and they even managed to give Simon Jenkins a go at criticizing the coverage of Mandela’s death. I can’t decide which part of Simon Jenkins’s article is worst – the fact that he paraphrases the title of a profoundly important book about the holocaust in order to criticize coverage of a hugely liberating figure; or the fact that he is writing it at all, given that he is a confirmed HIV denialist and was directly involved in promoting HIV denialist science, which cost South African blacks so many lost lives and chances.

Now, I’ll be the first to admit that I’m no fan of hagiography and I’m happy to criticize my heroes, but I would have thought that in this case someone as profoundly important as Mandela could be given a week or two before the critical analysis of his legacy began. I mean, he only just died and the left – which historically was most broadly supportive of him – have been really quick to start pissing all over his legacy. I guess it’s largely the British left I’m quoting here, but over at Crooked Timber’s comment thread on Mandela a wide range of commenters seem to have joined in with this “he didn’t immediately undo all the economic wrongs of apartheid so he was bad” chorus, and a lot of the commenters there must be American. It makes me a bit uncomfortable, especially since those on the right who were famously opposed to Mandela at the time (people like Bush, the entire Israeli government, etc) have largely refrained from resurrecting their criticisms of the time. Surely if his opponents of the time don’t feel it’s right to say anything bad about him for a week or so, it might be worth one’s while to stow it for a bit?

One of the main threads of left-wing criticism of Mandela appears to be that he didn’t do much to reduce inequality, and we see various strengths of this argument ranging from “he blew a chance” through “he let down his communist allies” to the extreme “he just swapped racial oppression for economic oppression” or “swapped one set of overlords for another” type arguments. I think there are two huge flaws in these opinions (aside from their obviously terrible timing): the first is that the data from within South Africa is not so clearly supportive of the conclusion that Mandela (and more broadly the ANC) have failed to do anything about inequality; and the second is that progress on inequality and the related left-wing complaint of a failure to rein in neo-liberalism’s negative effects needs to be judged against the context of progress in the rest of the world over the same period, and against the backdrop of HIV in South Africa.

What does the data say on inequality in South Africa?

My first complaint with criticisms of these claims is that the data on inequality in South Africa is not being well assessed, and that the broader development issues South Africa faced are not being considered. Let’s consider that second complaint first. In the Counterpunch article I linked to above, for example, Patrick Bond writes critically:

the sustained overaccumulation problem in highly-monopolised sectors continued, as manufacturing capacity utilization continued to fall from levels around 85 percent in the early 1970s to 82 percent in 1994 to below 80 percent by the early 2000s

This seems hugely unfair to me. I don’t know a great deal about South Africa, but I’m guessing that “manufacturing capacity utilization” in the 1970s was highly dominated by the use of cheap, exploitable labour who had no rights and no capacity to control the extent to which they were “utilized.” Furthermore, the sanctions of the 1980s would have further restricted the ability of South African industry to modernize in a way that would improve capacity utilization, and by the time their investments were up and running in the early 2000s they faced … China. This capacity utilization also looks pretty favourable when compared to the USA, where in 2009 it was 64%. It doesn’t seem to me that this claim is fair.

We’ll come back to this problem of context and comparison with the USA later, but for now let’s look at the data. It’s true that South Africa has a terrible level of inequality, with a Gini index of between 0.6 and 0.7 depending on how you measure it. The world bank suggests that there has been an increase in inequality (measured using the Gini), with Gini values in 1995 of 57 and in 2010 of 63. That’s not a big change, though – this UNU working paper shows that World Bank estimates of the Gini coefficient in 1995 showed a wider range of values than the entire change recorded by the World Bank between 1995 and 2010. There is no clear method for calculating variance in Gini coefficients, and not enough data generally to establish what that variance might be, so whether or not the change from 1995 to 2010 is significant is hard to know.

The story becomes even more complicated than that when you consider the data challenges in nations like South Africa, and look at more nuanced research into inequality in South Africa. It’s difficult to believe that data on black South Africans collected before 1995 was really very good or complete, so the true depth of inequality in apartheid South Africa is hard to be confident about. Furthermore, assessment of wealth in low income countries is not so simple as simply calculating income – it is typically done through assessment of consumption expenditure. This is done because poor people in low income countries tend to underestimate or misreport their income, and much of their wealth can be tied up in informal markets and means of exchange (e.g. they have land and pigs but little money). Measures of Gini in South Africa based on consumption expenditure tend to be different to those based on income, and measures of wealth based on consumption are not readily available in earlier years. Furthermore, the Gini is a very poor measure of inequality – not only is uncertainty usually not calculated, but it doesn’t give any meaningful distinction between different types of inequality, and I seriously doubt it’s linear. For example, a change in Gini index from 0.35 to 0.40 may have a very different meaning to a change from 0.57 to 0.63. I don’t think any realistic work has been done on how useful the Gini index is for either within- or between-nation comparisons.

However, there is some recent research available on inequality in South Africa that paints a more nuanced picture. This research, from the University of Stellenbosch, suggests that poverty – measured in absolute and relative terms – has declined in South Africa, and that inequality within racial groups has increased while inequality between racial groups has decreased. In fact, according to this report:

  • The proportion of households with children reporting any form of hunger has declined by 15% in the past 6 years
  • The share of black people in the middle class has increased from 11% in 1994 to 22% in 2004
  • Poverty headcount rates have declined from a peak of 53% in 1996 to 44% now, a record low
  • Income growth over the period 1994-2010 has been approximately similar amongst whites and blacks
  • The proportion of total income earned by black people has grown from 33% to 39%, while amongst whites it has declined from 55% to 48%
  • Within-race inequality contributed only 39% to inequality in 1993 and now constitutes 60%

The report also points out that World Bank Gini coefficients don’t properly adjust for household size, and household-weighted Gini coefficients were 0.67 in 1993 and are 0.69 now. They write:

A decomposition of the Theil index shows that the decline in income inequality between race groups throughout the period offset the rising inequality within groups. This trend of falling inter-racial inequality coupled with rising intra-racial inequality is also a continuation of a phenomenon first observed in the 1970s (Whiteford & Van Seventer 2000). Note that these estimates of the population Gini are near the upper end of South African Gini estimates, although they remain smaller than those calculated by Ardington et al. (2005) using the 2001 census. The trends in inequality derived from the AMPS data are likely to be more reliable than the estimated levels, as the levels may be more affected by the nature of the data (household income estimates in income bands based on a single question).

The Gini coefficients shown here are higher than those often reported. The reason for that is that many Gini calculations use the weighting for the household, without multiplying that by the household size, as should be done: Larger households have more members, and this should be considered in calculating inequality. The Gini coefficients here are thus the correct ones, and much higher than those reported by among others the World Bank, which are based on inappropriate weights. The Gini coefficient of 0.685 reported for 2006 would have been only 0.638 if the more common, but incorrect, weights were used.
This report overall paints a picture of small but noticable reductions in inter-racial inequality, and reductions in the levels of absolute poverty seen before the end of Apartheid. It’s pretty modest, but overall it seems safe to say that South Africa may reduce inequality slightly and cannot be said to have significantly increased it. This claim may seem weak, but when we compare it to the rest of the world and consider it in its proper context, it’s important.
Considering South Africa’s economic changes in the global and regional context
In economics there is a simple method for assessing the effect of an intervention called the Difference-in-Difference model. In this model you compare the actual change in the group that received an intervention with the counter-factual that would be expected if they haven’t; you estimate the counter-factual from a control group measured before and after the intervention. In this case the intervention is the end of apartheid, and the control group is other countries. Consider, for example, how income inequality has changed in South Africa and the USA since the 1970s. According to the World Bank, the top decile of income earners in South Africa control 58% of all income in 2010. Research from Stanford University puts the equivalent number in the USA at 50%, but look at the curve: since the 1970s the share of income held by the top decile of US income earners has increased from about 35% to 50%. Income inequality has increased rapidly in many high income countries under the influence of various forms of neo-liberalism and/or trade liberalization. For example in the UK the Gini coefficient has increased from 0.35 to 0.41 since 1990, a much larger (proportionate) increase than observed in South Africa. Seen against the backdrop of international changes brought about by major international movements, it appears that Mandela and the ANC have managed to resist many of the worst changes that have swept through the industrialized west. It is this international context that is missing from the Counterpunch article linked above, where they provide critical statistics about South Africa’s industrial and economic performance without any comparison to overseas, where equal or far worse changes have occurred in the same time frame. The industrial economies of much of the rich west have been hollowed out by a mixture of ponzi economics and the rapid growth of Asia; South Africa seems to have escaped the worst of some of these changes, and though things clearly aren’t pretty in the economic statistics that South Africa presents, it is also clear that they have got vaguely better and certainly not much worse, against a backdrop of really challenging international and domestic changes.
The domestic changes also need to he emphasized when assessing Mandela’s legacy. He inherited a corrupt one party state with a political system built on state violence against a powerless minority, crippled by years of sanctions and sitting on the silent time bomb of HIV. While the ANC’s response to HIV was terrible, it’s worth noting that the first 10-20 years of growth of HIV happened under apartheid, and it’s really hard to believe that since HIV was identified in 1984 the white regime was doing much to prevent its spread. Against a backdrop of revolution, poverty, discrimination and chaos, what kinds of interventions did de Klerk have in place? And even after Mandela took the reins, most of Africa was still unaware of how to deal with HIV and just how terrible it was going to become; much of the context of the epidemic that unfolded subsequently had already been set and although the response could have been better handled since 1994, and certainly since 1997, it’s not unreasonable to suppose that even a really pro-active intervention would have failed under the circumstances. As a result of this epidemic, life expectancy in South Africa has collapsed, and South Africa is one of the countries facing serious economic challenges because of the epidemic. I have written before about how terrible this epidemic can be for societies suffering it, and challenged readers to consider alternative futures where it arose as a generalized epidemic in the USA or Europe. Does anyone think that the USA would have experienced the same economic growth and changes since 1994 if it had suffered the epidemic the way South Africa is? This needs to be considered when criticizing health spending and economic growth in South Africa.
Given this context, I can only summarize by saying that Mandela and the ANC did okay in handling inequality. Obviously not as well as anyone would have liked but also much better than, say, the US under (lefty) Clinton or the UK under (lefty) Blair. So I think leftists should perhaps be a little more circumspect in their criticisms of Mandela and the ANC’s legacy. Perhaps it would be good if they took a week to laud his obvious achievements, and to read the literature.
A final note about iconoclasm in coverage of Mandela’s death
In case you thought the mainstream left was alone in being a little too quick to criticize Mandela, spare a thought for the lunatic right. The National Review Online editors’ piece on Mandela was remarkable, managing to wrap a vicious and angry rant inside a thin shell of flattery; and its commenters still complained that the NRO has become too left wing in its coverage, and that Mandela committed genocide. But perhaps best is the efforts of the white power losers from the OSR blogosphere, who hate-bombed a thread about Mandela on Dragonsfoot with complaints about his terrorism and white genocide. Remember that next time an OSR blogger drifts over here to complain about my criticisms of Tolkien … still, the OSR being caught up in 1986 I guess they haven’t worked out that apartheid is over.
Anyway, I don’t feel like this has been a great week for the mainstream left media, such as it is, and I hope that some of Mandela’s critics on the left will find this piece and consider a slightly more nuanced understanding of what he did in power. I also hope that people will start using slightly better measures of inequality than Gini indices … but that’s a post for another day!

I follow God on Facebook[1]. Not the real God, obviously, but this one has almost as many followers: just over a million people follow God. God does a couple of weekly regular updates that get a lot of attention: he does a weekly smite where he finds someone really annoying in public life and threatens to strike them down with some terrible curse; he posts pictures of new creations in which he has blended animals together; and he runs regular “Ask God” sessions where you can ask him questions about life. My favourite was the guy who asked God “why does my girlfriend yell your name when she is coming,” but he has a wide range of questioners. He also occasionally puts up hate mail he gets – he gets a lot of messages from people telling him to stop mocking God, and mostly these messages are full of hatred and anger.

I think it’s safe to say that God is a pretty forgiving, tolerant, inclusive kind of guy. He’s of the pro-gay-marriage, live-and-let-live, community-action-minded kind of viewpoint, not the kind of person who supports vengeance and judgment. He’s how God would be if God hadn’t written the Old Testament, and caused all manner of trouble with his violence and vengeance. This is not a God that will turn you to salt for disobeying him, and will refer you to a suicide helpline rather than tell you not to do it or you’ll go to hell. He’s also funny, sometimes hilarious, and a generally light-hearted and positive voice on my Facebook feed.

Sadly for God, recently his mother died, and he and his family were rightly distraught about it. He announced this on his website and received a huge outpouring of support. Perhaps buoyed by this, God revealed that the insurance company were being dickheads, and set up an Indiegogo website to raise $5000 to send his dad on a holiday. This got a huge response, and within a couple of days God had raised $20,000. You can read more details about the positive aspects of this story at this blogpost about God as a community phenomenon.

Sadly, God’s Indiegogo successes brought some trouble to his online community, and the very worst of humanity came crawling out from under their rocks to criticize him. The things they said were terrible, and the things they said about those who donated to him were also terrible. The worst of the comments have been weeded out now so I can’t copy them, but there are still some pearlers. For example, one person wrote:

like i said before…it is kind of sad that i asked for money to pay my mother’s cancer bills and did not receive a penny…but YOU raise thousands of dollar’s for ” a vacation”……what a shameful example of humanity !!!

Another wrote:

I’ve had enough. Man, it’s like a car wreck!! I can’t believe how many gullible people there are in the world! Yes this was a fun page to visit on occasion but folks….his reward for putting the page up in the first place is his million followers. That’s the reason he does it. He doesn’t get to expect money for making you laugh. To each their own but you are sending money to a cartoon image. You know nothing about this person except what he/she wants you to know. If you think he or she is going to visit you while on vacation with Dad, you’ve got another think coming. YOU ARE SENDING MONEY TO A CARTOON!!!

while someone else writes

like this god page, but i think asking for money and receiving over $20,000 is kind of bullshit in my eyes, sounds alot like gods taking this stuff to seriously and becoming like the church……

but the nastiest by far for me was a comment that has now been taken down, which I saw with my own eyes when it was put up, in which someone wrote

Both my parents died and I didn’t get a cent from anyone. Get a fucking job.

These comments to me seem to show the worst of humanity. Some guy with a million followers openly states that he wants to raise money for some personal, completely selfish purpose; people give him money because they like him and it’s no trouble to them; he raises more than expected and decides to use it for himself; but for a  sizable minority of the population, this is a terrible terrible sin. The first quoted comment shows the reason for this: people can see a person getting something they couldn’t get, and they are angry about that. But they aren’t just angry – although they know that he is sad from a recent loss of a close family member, they post critical comments and accusations on his facebook wall where he can see them. These comments include personal attacks, accusations that he is lying about his family, that he is a scammer, and demands for him to drop his anonymity. Something that had originally been a source of joy for a person going through a difficult time has obviously turned into a huge and painful chore, simply because a sizable minority of people on this earth hate to see someone else gain something for nothing. And no doubt some of the attacks will rub off on God, making him feel like a dirty person for simply asking for help and receiving it. Is this a microcosm of the reasons why so many people are opposed to welfare in all its forms? And why charity is always expected to come with so many strings and so much shame?

I find this particularly amusing when I compare God’s honest and open request for money for jam with the way so many Indiegogo users scam their users through obvious deception. I defriended someone from my Facebook after they began spamming their friends with Indiegogo fundraisers for a project that was clearly dishonest and that they never intended to deliver on; and of course the role-playing world has been beset by very real scams involving large sums of money on undelivered projects, and an entire website devoted to uncovering vaporware. Strangely though, the Dwimmermount project still has supporters even though the author has disappeared for 18 months and taken $50k with him; while God cops a heavy dose of abuse for asking for $5k for the stated purpose of producing nothing. How can it be that the humans in this world can behave this way? What psychological or philosophical perspective makes people supportive of a scam with no product after 18 months, but critical of a direct and simple plea for money from someone who has been entertaining a million people for 3 years?

It’s as if God has managed to prove that there is no humanity out there, just a deep, untapped well of jealousy and immaturity.

fn1: yes, I am sufficiently shallow to have facebook. And no I don’t use google+.